Despite more than 100 years’ development in motor vehicles, seat design and construction continue to be an enduring challenge for the auto industry. A new car invariably signals a new seat design or at least an extensive aesthetic modification of an existing solution, even though that solution may have proven successful in its safety performance, anatomical attributes, and its looks.
But there are other reasons for changes, and one of them concerns greenness—in the environmental not color and trim sense. That is why Johnson Controls is entering into what it plans to be a long-term cooperation agreement with the German Fraunhofer Research Institution for Polymeric Materials and Composites (PYCO), which is described as a developer of highly cross-linked polymers (reactive resins/duromers) and fiber-reinforced composites.
Both organizations will be cross-linking their know-how to develop polymer systems that are recyclable and repairable while integrating required mechanical properties and achieving weight savings.
“Together we want to develop new, lightweight materials and bring them to market sooner,” said Andreas Eppinger, Group Vice President for Technology Management at Johnson Controls’ Automotive Experience.
Johnson Controls and the Institution plan to expand the PYCO Technikum science center to help achieve this in parallel with what they term “innovative processing technologies.” Fraunhofer PYCO can be involved in the complete development chain of materials, from monomers to the end product.
Partnerships of this type are increasingly significant in the auto industry, as are mergers and acquisitions of companies operating in areas common to each other. Johnson Controls achieved that with its recent acquisition of automotive seating specialists C. Rob Hammerstein (CRH) and Keiper.
In common with most suppliers, Johnson Controls is constantly working toward weight savings to offset weight-increasing aspects of seat design, including associated controls, that are driven by safety requirements and perceived market expectations. An example is its recently introduced modular front seat that it regards as setting a new benchmark in lightweight construction.
Mercedes-Benz is to fit it to various models, and it will be built in 30 versions. It is the result of the combined efforts of Johnson Controls, CRH, and Keiper. Beda Bolzenius, President of Johnson Controls’ Automotive Experience, has stated that the design is believed to be “the lowest-weight structure of its kind in the market.”
Maximum saving is 6.4 kg (14 lb) per vehicle, and the seats benefit from the sort of synthetic materials know-how that will be broadened and deepened by the PYCO link, making an alternative to steel for components such as the seat tilt mechanism but with the constant aim of not reducing quality and “premiumness”—both right at the top of Mercedes’ design and manufacturing priorities. High-strength steels, though, do still find applications in seats.
A constant problem for seat makers is the challenge of integrating this premiumness, not only in up-market cars but also in what some may regard as wheeled arrivistes, or at least pretenders to a heightened market position. “Through the integration of electronics, such as rear-seat entertainment systems in the headrests and a growing number of features, automotive seats have to serve multiple purposes,” said Bolzenius.
But those rear-seat passengers can benefit from what is happening in front. For the Mercedes application of Johnson Controls’ new front seats, the backrest provides increased spaciousness thanks to a compact and slim basic structure to give added legroom for those in the back seats.
While safety and aesthetics are essential aspects of seat design, so are comfort and correct back support. General Motors’ Opel/Vauxhall Astra VXR, unveiled at the Geneva Motor Show, has front seats that incorporate injection-molded sheet in their shells, said by the company to reduce weight by some 45% compared to conventional shells.
Full details of the design have not been released, but an Opel/Vauxhall spokesperson said the sheet incorporates “a composite material made from polyamide and glass fiber” and that it is less than 3 mm (0.12 in) deep. The seats, produced in-house by Opel/Vauxhall, have pneumatically adjustable cushions in their flanks and are the first in the VXR’s class to be certified by the German organization AGR (Action for Healthy Backs), which comprises leading doctors and therapists. To gain approval, the seats needed to meet several criteria, including checks for lordocis support and to have backrest contours that adapt precisely to the natural curvature of the spine.